The sheer immensity of India—its history, geography, politics and peoples—would be hard to condense under any circumstances, but author Sujatha Gidla, niece of the communist revolutionary hero and poet Satyamurthy, brilliantly narrows the scope by explaining the tumultuous events of 20th-century India through her own family’s strife-ridden lives. The result is Ants Among Elephants, an intense exploration of India’s caste system in all of its complexities, and the impact it continues to have in modern India.
Born an untouchable in a slum of Andhra Pradesh, Gidla explains that the role of her caste is “to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy.” Mingling with those not in her caste is forbidden, and doing so can result in punishment. Untouchables live highly restricted lives, and their caste status affects nearly every aspect of their existence. When, at the age of 26, Gidla moves to America, “where people know only skin color,” she realizes that her caste is now invisible and “my stories, my family’s stories, are not stories of shame.”
The lives of Gidla’s uncles and parents convulsed as their country heaved with the changing times. Sweeping through it all with a broad but enlightening brush, Gidla pauses her tale to explore moments in time with vivid, grim details about the cruelties and injustices inflicted on her caste. Her father was forced to leave his starving children in order to support them, while her mother overcame prejudices to earn advanced degrees, only to become a teacher unable to hold a job. Satyamurthy inspired Gidla’s own activism before barely escaping with his life. Today Gidla works as a subway conductor in New York, telling these stories to ensure they will continue to matter.